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ILWU stops talks for 12 days; US shipper groups call for action


SAN FRANCISCO, Cal.–The  Pacific Maritime Association said that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is refusing to hold so-called “big-table” talks between chief negotiators ILWU President Bob McEllrath and PMA President Jim McKenna and has decided to curtail the talks for 12 days.

The decision to not have the lead negotiators meet for a dozen days after more than six months of contract talks is bad news for importers and exporters hoping for a quick agreement and rapid restoration of normal operations at West Coast ports. The two sides have been meeting since May 12 to negotiate a contract to replace the one that expired on July 1, reported American Shipper.

“Three weeks after initiating a coordinated series of slowdowns that have plagued the major West Coast ports of Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach, the ILWU has now taken its slowdown tactics to the bargaining table,” the PMA charged.

“As a result of the union’s decision, the only bargaining through Dec. 1 will be limited to sub-committees discussing limited issues, with most members of the ILWU’s negotiating committee taking an extended break,” the management group said.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, said “Our view is that we are trying to make progress and we think these smaller committees offer a better chance for progress on some important issues that need to be addressed. We are hoping both sides can move things along as quickly as possible.”

He said that during the negotiations, there have been periods where smaller groups have met. He said it will be up to the committee members if they will meet right up to Thanksgiving next week.

The fact that the leaders of the union and PMA are not continuing to meet upset some shipper groups.

Bruce Carlton, the chief executive officer of the National Industrial Transportation League, said, “This is irresponsible and unprofessional behavior on the part of the ILWU. The union’s leadership is turning a blind eye on the consequences of their passive aggressive tactics on millions of others throughout the U.S. who will be negatively affected by their actions.”

Matthew Shay, the president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, said he was “greatly disappointed” that both side are taking a break from the negotiations. “After six months of negotiations we have seen very little progress,” he added.

“We reiterate our call on President Obama to immediately engage the parties to get them back to the negotiating table. It’s time the parties accept a federal mediator to help them bridge the gaps and arrive at a new contract. Without a contract, stakeholders cannot work on addressing the ongoing congestion issues at the ports,” said Shay.“We urge the two sides to end the brinkmanship and return to the talks immediately. The nation’s retailers and our vendors, suppliers and customers are counting on the two parties to act responsibly.”

Congestion at ports has intensified in recent weeks. Container shipping lines have complained about slowdowns by ILWU members and have said the union is not dispatching properly qualified workers. The union said it is being unfairly blamed for congestion, adding that the congestion has many causes not within its control — higher cargo volumes; shortages of chassis, truck drivers and rail capacity; and decisions by carriers to deploy larger ships and form new alliances without proper planning.

One of the Federal Maritime Commissioners, William Doyle, issued a statement earlier this week in which he said, “I believe it is time that the ocean carriers do their part and find ways to assist in eliminating port congestion. As has been pointed out by many industry stakeholders, the actions of the carriers have, in part, led to where we are today.”

Doyle made his observation as he and some other FMC Commissioners were voting to ask the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement, a discussion agreement that includes virtually all container carriers operating between Asia and the U.S., for additional information. The agreement is seeking to make permanent a temporary arrangement which allowed it to encompass discussions about export trade as well as imports.

The PMA said Thursday, “This slowdown in negotiations and the union’s refusal to extend the contract are taking place amid continuing worker slowdowns, which began on Halloween in Tacoma and soon spread to Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach. In some ports, productivity remains 30-percent or more below normal, as a result of orchestrated ILWU maneuvers.

It continued, “These slowdowns are impacting retailers, farmers, manufacturers, consumers and others during the holiday season and at a critical time for the U.S. economy. The union slowdowns in Seattle and Tacoma particularly have crippled the agricultural industries in the Pacific Northwest right at harvest export season, meaning that millions of dollars’ worth of Washington State apples, Idaho potatoes, hay, Christmas trees and other perishables are rotting in containers sitting on the docks. Agriculture voices are concerned that small farmers and growers will lose not only this year’s crop values, but also future contracts as overseas customers look elsewhere for dependable supplies.

“This productivity loss is distinct from the congestion that has caused operational challenges at the Southern California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In fact, those two ports were the only major West Coast ports that experienced congestion prior to ILWU slowdowns, and the ILWU has knowingly made the situation in Southern California worse by failing to dispatch qualified crane operators per longstanding practice — the same skilled workers who can help to alleviate yard congestion. Union leaders have made clear that they will continue this unilateral change in practice until a new coast-wide agreement is reached.”

In recent weeks, frustrated shipper groups have been asking the White House to get involved in the talks by encouraging a settlement or the use of a federal mediator. Two weeks ago, 105 business groups asked President Obama to encourage the ILWU and the PMA “to begin working with a federal mediator through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). This approach was successful in resolving difficult negotiations for East and Gulf Coast ports just last year.”

They continued, “Even if both parties refuse federal mediation, we believe the FMCS would benefit from beginning to monitor the negotiations.”

On Nov. 17, a group of 61 agricultural groups made a similar request to Obama, asking him to “use whatever means you have at your disposal, including bringing in a federal mediator to help resolve the contract negotiations. As you know, federal mediators have been very helpful in past port contract disputes.”

The union is “adamant they don’t want a mediator involved,” said one source. He added that the idea has not really been discussed since the employers know the union is opposed.

Merrilees said adding a mediator to the process won’t necessarily fix things.

“Mediators are not magicians with special powers,” said Merrilees. “The agreement has to be reached by the employers and the union, and there is nothing on the negotiating table that can’t be resolved by both parties seeking a fair agreement.”

A federal mediator would have to be requested by both parties, and there is no indication the Obama administration has asked the sides to consider mediation.

A statement issued by the White House this w
eek referenced the negotiations between the ILA and employers represented by the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) two years ago. The statement read, “Just as the two sides in that case were able to resolve their differences through the time-tested process of collective bargaining, we’re confident that management and labor at the West Coast ports can do the same thing. They’re at the table trying to work it out, and we’re confident that there’s a way forward. We continue to monitor the situation,” said the report.